How did a serial killer from the 19th century almost get away with murder?
At the end of the 19th century, Martha Needle became known as ‘The Black Widow’ of the Richmond poisoning case after secretly poisoning her husband and children. The Black Widow was a media sensation in her day, as infamous as Ned Kelly (even sharing the same lawyer). After poisoning her husband and two of her children, Needle became obsessed with the kind-hearted son of a Danish immigrant and began picking off his brothers one by one. Reported as far afield as the New York Times, Martha’s story was front page news in Australia, edging out many stories of the day that remain in the public consciousness today. And yet very few remember Martha Needle’s name. Stranger still a generation later Martha Needle’s nephew Alexander Lee seemed to follow in his aunt’s footsteps when he poisoned his wife and three of his children. What strange quirk of fate led these two relatives connected through family to commit virtually the same crime? And was their fate at the end of a rope the true end of the story? This story explores these crimes and the social and historical context surrounding them.
Dr Samantha Battams is a writer of non-fiction historical books/biographies based on Australian history, public health educator and researcher and management consultant.
She has written 3 books. Her first book is a 19thC true-crime tale: The Secret Art of Poisoning: the True Crimes of Martha Needle, the Richmond Poisoner (2019).
Her second book was written with co-author Les Parsons and is on a pioneer aviator from WW1: The Red Devil: The Story of South Australian Aviation Pioneer Captain Harry Butler (2019, Wakefield Press).
Her 3rd book is a follow up on the first story: The Rhynie Poisoning Case: The True Crimes of Alexander Newland Lee (2021).
Samantha is also an Associate Professor and has been a university educator & researcher (public health), community development worker, advocate, health service manager and management consultant. Samantha resides in Adelaide, Australia, is widely travelled and has lived and worked in Switzerland in global health. She has a BA Hons (Soc Sci), and PhD in Public Health. She has published academic articles and book chapters in the fields of public health, global health, social policy and sociology.
When I first moved to Melbourne in the late 1990s, I lived in Richmond. At some point during my five years there, before I moved to the city, I learned about Martha Needle, the woman who lived on Bridge Road in the 1890s and poisoned her husband, three children and the brother of her fiance. That's as much as I knew, but that little conjured an image of a sly, vicious woman, disposing of unwanted encumbrances to get her own way and maybe a spot of insurance money.
As with all true stories, however, a lot more complexity is unravelled when you start to explore the details. Martha Needle's guilt, on the face of it, is undoubted, and she was hanged for her crimes – but author Samantha Battams does an excellent job of uncovering the details of Martha's tragic history and the circumstances of her crimes in The Secret Art of Poisoning: The True Crimes of Martha Needle, The Richmond Poisoner.
Battam goes into Martha Needle's life in detail, beginning with the life of her mother, Mary Newland, who arrived in Adelaide in 1852, one of many women who came to be brides for the male-dominated colonial outpost.
The Secret Art of Poisoning: The True Crimes of Martha Needle, The Richmond Poisoner is a very thorough account of Martha's harsh and difficult life, her precarious mental health and the deeds she committed and for which she was punished. Biased news coverage, many personal letters, the court proceedings (including the judge's summing up) and other primary documents are quoted at length, and the final chapter brings together Battams' observations on the social and historical influences that are so deeply embedded in the fate of Martha Needle and her victims.
On the technical side, a more stringent proofread before publication would have caught some of the more obvious typos and inconsistencies in punctuation which caught my eye and interrupted the reading flow, especially in the early chapters, but it's a minor niggle in the presentation.
It's a solid account, but if there's a disappointment, it's in an early promise not fulfilled. Battams reveals in the introduction how she stumbled across Martha Needle's story by first encountering the story of how one Alexander Lee poisoned his wife and children in the 1920s. Lee was Martha Needle's nephew.
The early suggestion of looking at how these two relatives and their fates were connected is only lightly touched on. I'd have enjoyed a bit more analysis, involving a more explicit look at their parallels, especially since the introduction specifically notes "I was also curious to know, did Alexander Lee know his Auntie Martha and grow up with stories of her infamous deeds?' while the back blurb reads "What strange quirk of fate led these two relatives... to commit virtually the same crime?" Any answer is inferred rather than fully examined.
Although my curiosity is left largely unsatisfied, The Secret Art of Poisoning: The True Crimes of Martha Needle, The Richmond Poisoner is a thorough examination of a horrible crime, trial by media, the treatment of poverty, trauma and mental health by the 19th century justice system, and how the truth is always so much more complex than a sobriquet like "The Richmond Poisoner" can ever hope to show.
Thoroughly enjoyable read! A great insight into the social and economic struggles of the time told through the life experiences of Martha Needle. I particularly enjoyed reading the actual transcript of the trial and the characters surrounding it.
The nineteenth century is often characterised as the Age of Steam; it was also the Age of Poison, with substances such as arsenic, cyanide and strychnine readily available to aspiring murderers.
The Secret Art of Poisoning illustrates the case of arsenic poisoning by relating the story of Martha Needle, the Richmond Poisoner.
Samantha Battams has written an engrossing account of the Needle case and set it moreover in the context of a time when vulnerable children - and adults - had little support dealing with abuse and mental illness, with tragic effects.
Martha was born in South Australia in 1863, the daughter of an impoverished immigrant named Mary Charles. Mary had married Joseph Charles and bore him several children. He deserted her and she deserted her children, when already pregnant with Martha, and took up with Daniel Foran, an army deserter. Martha’s early family life was itinerant, unstable, sometimes violent and poverty stricken, with Mary often drunk and in and out of gaol or the Destitute Asylum, and her stepfather committing sexual abuse on her at a young age.
When she was 16, Martha met and eventually married a Port Adelaide carpenter named Henry Needle. On a hunt for work, the Needles settled in Melbourne during harsh economic times, forcing them to take in lodgers. In this environment, Henry soon became jealous of his wife and was violent towards her. Then the deaths began: her daughter, husband and subsequently her remaining two children. At the time of these deaths, poisoning was not suspected. Around this time, Martha befriended the Juncken family - three brothers named Otto, Louis and Herman, and their mother. In time, Otto and Martha became engaged, but Louis and his mother opposed the marriage. Louis soon died, mother received threats and Herman became ill after visiting Martha. Herman went to the police, who laid a trap and arsenic poisoning was soon established.
Following exhumation and further testing, it was established that Henry Needle and at least two of the children had died of arsenic poisoning, and Martha was soon arraigned on a charge of attempting to murder Herman, with a charge of murdering Louis added later.
The central part of the book deals with Martha’s committal proceedings, followed by her Supreme Court trial and execution. Her character and relationships with her family, friends and lodgers are examined in detail. A picture emerges of a disturbed and distressed woman. On the one hand, little doubt remained as to her guilt yet on the other hand her kindliness and care towards others was established. She could be charming yet also exhibited aggression, difficulty controlling anger, antisocial behaviour, impulsivity, drug abuse, suicidal tendencies and moods wings. Increasingly we see her as a woman out of touch with reality, denying knowledge of people she knew well, including Otto Juncken, maintaining her innocence and suffering from hallucinations and strange fainting fits. Despite pleas from friends, she was executed in 1894.
The final part of the book consists of an examination of Martha’s psychology and behaviour in the context of her disturbed upbringing and the lack of support in Victorian times for children brought up in such circumstances, especially when subjected to sexual abuse by family members. Battams suggest that Martha’s childhood experiences as well as an environment of domestic violence may have resulted in a depersonalisation disorder or dissociative identity disorder. Battams also links the circumstances of those times with our own and its continuing ability to effectively address issues such as child abuse and domestic violence.
Overall, I found this book enjoyable and interesting to read and it extended my knowledge not only of the Needle case itself but of social and judicial conditions in late Victorian society in Australia.
The Secret Art of Poisoning: The True Crimes of Martha Needle, the Richmond Poisoner by Samantha Battams. This was a very interesting and detailed read. The book showed how children from dysfunctional poor families live sad lives that carry on into adulthood. Conditions in the 19th century in Australia were quite dire for many people. It was not an easy life. Martha Needle had a very unsettled and unhappy childhood, void of family love. Sexually abused by her step father and obviously was ill equipped to cope with life’s struggles. Justice also was not served for this poor woman. We presume that she was guilty of the crime as she had purchased rat poison but she obviously had mental health issues and it appears an addiction to an opioid. She was treated quite severely. No empathy had been given for her life’s circumstances and that obviously she was not of right mind to commit such a crime against her family. (If she did) Also she was having delusions and catatonic episodes that were happening frequently at the time of her supposed poisoning of her friends brothers. This showed she was not well at all. In those days if proven guilty there was no leniency. What happened in those times is in total contrast to what happens in the legal system today. The story was easy to follow and am looking forward to reading Samantha Battams next book.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Martha Needle was either a cold-blooded murderer or a ‘victim of circumstance’. I think it is up to the reader to decide despite the jury finding her guilty. This book gave me a more detailed look at her life and times.
The story of Martha Needle has been researched and told many times. Brian Williams did exactly this in his book published in 2018 and Martha's crimes have featured on numerous occasions in newspapers in recent years.
As one would expect from an academic, Dr Battams has also thoroughly researched Martha's story and set it against a well-written backdrop describing the impact of social and economic conditions of the time. The use of Rough on Rats (well-known as a poison of choice) is examined in the context of the times and Martha's crimes.
Despite the extensive research and well-written dissection of Martha Needle, this book adds nothing new and presents no new facts or insights. Bantam draws on readily available sources for Martha's crimes, trial and execution. She offers the same tenuous speculation about the familial tendency for poisoning as does Williams (although Battams takes more time in her exploration) when she outlines the crimes committed by Alexander Newland Lee. Battams claims her discovery of Lee's relationship to Martha was 'astonishing' - in fact this relationship is both well-known and extensively documented. There is no evidence to suggest that Alexander inherited his aunt's propensity for poisoning so the speculation is unfounded. Further, he died more than 20 years after Martha and there is nothing to suggest he had any opportunity to be influenced by her or even met her.
Despite the lack of new facts relating to Martha Needle's story, there is no doubt that this book can stand alone for lovers of true crime and for readers for whom the story is new. Perhaps some readers may find the pages of complete court transcripts tedious to read, but for those interested in the facts these are important and relevant.
Readers interested in Martha may also consider Brian Williams' book - once both his and Battam's book have been read, there is probably little more worth reading about Martha - unless evidence can be found proving her influence on Alexander or family tendencies for murder.
A meticulously researched book which covers all the facts, details and circumstances of Martha Needle and her crimes. The economic, social and historical context is woven throughout to give the story depth and bring the characters and the locations to life. So many of the issues that faced women like Martha and children of her time remain - child protection, quality of evidence, poverty, mental health, alcohol and substance abuse. This true crime story is more than an historical narrative.
Very well researched. It wasn’t a style of writing I found comfortable reading. I also had an issue with the author using the incorrect past tense for hang, and although it only occurred a few times, it jarred badly.it was a very informative read, but a tad too long winded for me.
Could have done with better editing as there are lots of little errors throughout. However the story was very interesting and I found the Epilogue particularly good in the way it compared and contrasted the events of the 1890s with contemporary issues.
Some amazing research and a sad and interesting story. It read like an academic paper - with all the footnotes, and the style of writing did grate. Also the final conclusion and supposition of what was happening - I did find it a little too little too late, and also didn't go deep enough. For example, earlier in the book the police had no problem investigating the assertion of someone being poisoned, why? Was poisoning prevalent during that era (yes), that wasn't explained. And also it would have been interesting to see on a macro level at the time how many people were poisoned, and by women in general, and why? (There is another novel that covers this & looks into the social aspect). If you are going to make a conclusion at the end, discuss it during the book and draw it out.
A forensic analysis of the troubled life of a murderer who could hardly have been expected to amount to much more. Bold and pacy, it's a must read, especially for South Australians born of descendants of the mother country. It connected me to my partner, a Charles, 160 years before we actually met.